Dickie Scruggs, master litigator, falls from grace

Dickie Scruggs was one of the masters of the universe of litigation.

The Mississippi lawyer brought large class action lawsuits against Big Tobacco and the asbestos companies and won billions of dollars for his clients and hundreds of millions for himself.

This is one reason journalist Curtis Wilkie was so puzzled to see Scruggs brought low by a conviction for bribing a judge in a case that involved a trifling $26 million.

“That was basically chump change to Dickie,” said Wilkie, who speaks Thursday at the Carter Center.

Untangling the mysteries of the Scruggs affair for his new book “The Fall of the House of Zeus: The Rise and Ruin of America’s Most Powerful Trial Lawyer,” Wilkie discovered a web connecting Scruggs to a remarkable cast of characters, including former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Jim Biden, brother of the current vice president.

He said the welter of names could confuse even a natural born Mississippian.

“I had read ‘War and Peace’ a few years earlier, and I found its cast of characters invaluable as I was plowing through all those Russian names.” Wilkie offered a similar roster at the front of his book, many of them names he knew from his school days at Ole Miss. A national and foreign correspondent for the Boston Globe for 26 years, Wilkie had returned to Mississippi about 10 years ago to teach at his alma mater when the Scruggs story fell in his lap.

“I was a friend of [Dickie Scruggs]," he said. "I should hasten to add I was friends with a lot of other characters in the book including some that hate Scruggs’ guts. It gave me an advantage to do the book because I knew so many people involved in the story. Many of us went to Ole Miss, including Dick’s brother-in-law law Trent Lott.”

The petty enmities in this group, plus Scruggs’ overwhelming desire to win at all costs, drive the action.

At the heart of the tale is a lawsuit brought by a former partner who claimed Scruggs failed to equitably divide the spoils in a successful Hurricane Katrina class action case. Because Scruggs had lost a similar lawsuit from another partner some years earlier, Wilkie said, he was determined not to get beat again.

Also in the mix was a state judge who served as “a willing secret agent for the government,” said Wilkie, adding that the judge’s requests for money amounted to something just short of entrapment.

Scruggs (and his son) landed in jail. The son is free but the father is serving seven years on two different counts. He is scheduled for release in 2015.

Wilkie has contacted Scruggs regularly since the conviction, and writes him once a month at his Kentucky minimum security prison. Scruggs' reaction to the book is "mixed," Wilkie said. "He's more interested in Ole Miss football than anything else these days.”

“Without being too pretentious, he lives up to a lot of the elements that are found in Greek tragedy," said Wilkie. "You have a hero who rises to the heights and is destroyed by his own fatal flaw, in this case, whether it was Scruggs' poor judgment in associates or his hatred of his rivals and determination to win, I don’t know. Whatever it was, it brought him down.”

. . . Curtis Wilkie speaks about "The Fall of the House off Zeus" 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 11,  at the Carter Presidential Library & Museum Theater, 441 Freedom Parkway, Atlanta, Georgia 30307; free and open to the public. Information: 404-865-7100; www.jimmycarterlibrary.gov/